Raw deal for wildlife


Trade in animal and plant life, including species protected by international conventions, has skyrocketed over the past decade or so, largely because of soaring demand from mainland China and many other parts of Asia, writes Bettina Wassener

Alittle more than a year ago, I wrote an article about the alarming pickup in the trade in endangered species that the world has seen in recent years.

A year later, the situation has, if anything, only worsened – and there is little prospect that campaigners and the enforcement authorities will be able to reverse the trend any time soon.

For those of you who do not follow the steady flow of wildlife-related news, here is a selection of some of the most striking events of the past year:

Hong Kong customs officials in November seized 33 rhinoceros horns, 758 ivory chopsticks and 127 ivory bracelets, worth about 17.4 million Hong Kong dollars, or $2.2 million, from a container shipped from Cape Town.

Hundreds of elephant tusks were seized by officials in China, Vietnam and Thailand, in three separate incidents in April alone.

Hundreds more were intercepted last year in a series of seizures in Malaysia, which has emerged as a major transit hub for illegally trafficked ivory.

More than 400 rhinoceroses were poached in South Africa in 2011 – up from 333 in 2010 and just half a dozen 10 years ago. Customs officers in Central Java in Indonesia late last year foiled an attempt to smuggle 6.7 tons of dried tokay geckos (large, orange-spotted lizards) bound for Hong Kong and mainland China. The creatures are popular in the pet trade and are also used in traditional Chinese medicine in the belief they can cure maladies like diabetes, asthma, skin disease and cancer.

And that, according to experts, is just the tip of the iceberg, in a market that is thought to be worth many billions of US dollars a year. The trade in animal and plant life, including in creatures protected by international conventions, has skyrocketed over the past decade or so, largely because of soaring demand from mainland China and many other parts of Asia.

By now, illegal wildlife trading ranks among the top five most valuable illicit markets globally, after counterfeiting and the illegal trafficking in drugs, humans and oil, according to Global Financial Integrity, a research and advocacy organisation based in Washington.

More money to spend
Rising levels of affluence mean that many millions are now able to buy coveted items like rare pets, plants and animals thought to have medicinal benefits, and food items or decorative wood that were once the purview of the privileged few. At the same time, transport and trade links have improved considerably, smoothing the flow of both legal and illegal goods.

“Not only have people got more cash, but the transport infrastructure has got much better – there are more flights connecting Asian markets than ever before,” said James Compton, senior director for Asia-Pacific at Traffic, an international organisation that monitors wildlife trade.

All this is making the work of smugglers easier - and the work of wildlife protectors harder. And although an increase in the number of smuggling intercepts is partly the result of improved customs checks, it also reflects that fact that the globalisation of wildlife trade picked up in 2011.

“We’ve seen a rise in the number of very large shipments – of a ton or more – and a shift from air transport to sea transport,” said Compton. “Sea cargo undergoes less scrutiny at ports; the sheer number of containers means there’s less chance that a particular cargo will be checked.”

There have been some positive developments recently, and the political will to combat wildlife crime is by no means absent. Asian governments, for example, have recently stepped up efforts at international collaboration to address the problems.

Wildlife traders at Chatuchak market in Bangkok, a sprawling weekend market that is an important hub for the trade in rare wildlife, are more cautious than they once were about selling their wares, according to Onkuri Majumdar, a senior programs officer at Freeland Foundation in Bangkok, which helps train the enforcement authorities and raise public awareness.

The sale of shark fins has been banned in several US states after soaring demand from China, where shark-fin soup is considered an essential dish at weddings, led to a steep fall in global shark populations.

And in South Africa, which is bearing the brunt of the recent jump in demand in rhinoceros poaching, the budget of the national parks authority has been more than doubled in the past few years, said Morne du Plessis, the chief executive of the environmental group WWF in that country.

“The likelihood of getting caught and severely punished for rhino poaching has risen substantially in South Africa recently,” du Plessis said by phone from Johannesburg last month. But, he said, “the battle is not going to be won in Africa. The battle is going to be won where the demand is – in Asia.”

A hard battle in Asia
For the time being, however, those fighting the trade in Asia are often under-resourced and responsible for combating many other types of smuggling, according to campaigners like Majumdar of Freeland Foundation. The penalties for getting caught, meanwhile, are generally too mild to act as much of a deterrent for poachers and traders. Very few seizures are moved through solid case preparation to use the full force of the law against organised wildlife crimes.

“At the moment, the risks are viewed as very low, and the financial opportunities as very high,” Compton of Traffic said.

Take rhinoceros horn, for example. By weight, this is now probably more valuable than gold, according to du Plessis, and poachers are often highly organised and well equipped, with night-vision equipment and helicopters.

The reason: many Vietnamese harbour a belief – which is not backed by scientific proof – that rhinoceros horn can cure cancer and other diseases, and they are willing to spend a lot on just a sliver of the supposed miracle cure. Without demand of this kind, the trade in wildlife – rhinoceroses, tigers, scaly ant-eaters, rare tortoises, sharks or precious wood used in the manufacture of traditional, high-end furniture in China – would not be as lucrative as it is. So raising awareness among consumers has become the main focus of campaign groups in Asia.

“We have to go beyond posters at airports,” Compton said. “We have to come up with new, innovative strategies, of substantial scale and duration, to address demand. If we can make consumption of endangered wildlife uncool among young people in Asia, then perhaps we have a chance of really shifting things.”

Liked the story?

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0